By Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett
“Help! I have three autistic students in my class of 30 students, how do I teach them, but still keep the rest of the class educated and engaged?”
“I need help managing behaviour such as loudness and rudeness in my classroom. It is happening every day and escalating. What do I do?”
“A child in my room bites other children, what can I do to help him stop?”
“My autistic student antagonises the other students to elicit big reactions from them and gains great enjoyment. What can I do?”
“How do I help my student who needs movement to focus but not distract the rest of the class?”
“She seems well in advance of her peers in mathematics and drawing but well behind them socially and emotionally. At what level do I engage and teach her?
These questions illustrate just how challenging having autistic students in a mainstream class can be, where there are a variety of needs amongst students, but often few resources, and many teachers feeling under prepared for autism after their initial teacher training. As a result, teachers can experience increased stress, a sense of dread associated with the school day ahead, a feeling of lack of understanding or support within the school system, and exhaustion leading to burnout.
We have found that it takes at least six months to really know an autistic student, and that knowledge will yield answers to many of the questions above. In fact, knowledge about autism and how autism manifests in your autistic student, combined with an attitude of curiosity, open-mindedness, and respect are the two tools that you need to be successful with your autistic students. The fact that you are asking questions and reading this blog means you already have these tools or are well on the way to having them.
In this blog we will share our top 10 strategies to assist you to a teach your autistic student.
Top 10 Strategies for Teaching Your Autistic Student
Increase your knowledge about autism. Understanding autism will help you to understand your autistic student’s behaviour. For example, frequently the reason behind their autistic behaviour is social confusion or sensory overload or both. Reducing confusion and overload is a quick way to manage the behaviour. We recommend that you read our blog post on What is High Functioning Autism.
Increase your knowledge about your autistic student. There is a saying, “if you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person.” In other words, the autistic community is a very heterogeneous group, and it is important to understand the unique profile of your autistic student. Ask both the parents and previous teachers to give you a one-page snapshot of the child.
Ask for the following information – your students:
- personality strengths
- long-term dream/goal
- learning profile
- 3-5 key challenges in the classroom, including sensory challenges
- solutions that have helped in the past
Increase your compassion and respect for your autistic student. It is difficult to be autistic in a world full of people who are not. On a daily basis they are challenged with understanding how other people think and relate, not being able to easily make friends or maintain them, bombarded by sensory experiences, frustrated by their own difficulties with initiating tasks and completing them, frustrated by not being able to follow their own agenda and not understanding why, feeling different from others, often feeling judgement and social rejection. We could go on. Increasing our compassion and respect for our autistic students increases our motivation, energy and drive to assist them, and this is what they need most, our assistance and support.
4. Support for You.
Get support for yourself. The best model in education that we have seen is to have a special needs unit within the mainstream school, where mainstream teachers have access to special needs teachers to consult around various challenges and issues, they experience in teaching autistic students. If this expertise is not available within your school, talk to your School Principal about how you may access this expertise in an ongoing basis.
5. Prioritise Learning.
Attend workshops on autism, join a support group if you become really interested (the passion for understanding and helping people with autism can be enormously strong throughout a person’s whole life, we call it being “bitten by the bug,” e.g., the authors of this blog!) and read relevant books. Here is a list of resources to help:
- Online Course: Emotion Management for Autistic Children and Adolescents
- Online Course: Succeeding with Autism in the Teens
- The Essential Manual for Asperger Syndrome (ASD) in the Classroom: What Every Teacher Needs to Know by Kathy Hoopmann, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Web: www.jkp.com
- Friendly Kids, Friendly Classrooms: Teaching Social Skills and Confidence in the Classroom by Helen McGrath and Shona Francey, published by Pearson Education Australia, Web: www.pearson.com.au
- Teacher Education and Autism, edited by Clare Lawrence, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Web: www.jkp.com
- Asperger Syndrome: A Practical Guide for Teachers by Val Cumine, Julia Dunlop and Gill Stevenson, published by Routledge, Web: www.routledge.com
- Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Mainstream Classroom: How to Reach and Teach Students with ASDs by Barbara Boroson, published by Scholastic Teaching Resources
6. A Sensory-Friendly Classroom.
Once you know the sensory profile of the autistic students in your class, make the accommodations necessary to ensure that your classroom is as autism friendly, considering the sensory profile, as possible. Make sensory toys available for all students. Over time, the ones who really need them or use them, and the novelty will wear off for the others. Many of the Neurotypical kids will also benefit!
7. A Sanctuary.
Set up a safe space that is either in a separate room, a separate building, or a corner of the classroom, that is a sacred space for retreat and recovery. Ensure that all students know that they can use this whenever they need to, to take time out to calm down and feel more focused. It is important that all the students understand that the space is a calm space, not a punishment space. There are rules for this space, for example, minimal talking, and only one person in the space at one time, if possible.
Consult with the parents (carers or Grandparents) regularly. Set up a meeting at the beginning of each term to discuss how the holidays have been, how the last term went, what worked, what didn’t, and to create a plan for the coming term. Have a review meeting during and at the end of the term to review what worked, what didn’t, barriers to success and how to remove those barriers and to create a plan for the next term.
9. Be flexible.
Plan to be flexible. Autistic kids need flexibility, creative solutions, flexible problem-solving, for their own unique situation and needs.
10. Create inclusivity.
Model and create an inclusive classroom where diversity is recognised and welcomed, respect and mistakes are expected, rules are created together and everyone is responsible for ensuring they are followed, classroom values are transparent and discussed. Where students feel safe to be their authentic selves, understand the parameters of their behaviour, and potential consequences for behaviour. Set up mentor relationships between students, based on their individual strengths and challenges, including academic, artistic, social, and emotional.
Teaching autistic students can seem daunting at first. Armed with knowledge about autism generally, and specifically for your student, an attitude that respects and accepts the student as they are, and support for yourself, you are well on your way to providing a teaching experience that will pave the way for your autistic student to thrive.